Global Affairs Canada announced Wednesday that consular staff had access to Robert Schellenberg, a Canadian sentenced to death on drug smuggling charges in China, for the first time since last January.
Canada’s ambassador to China, Dominic Barton, gained virtual access to Schellenberg, Global Affairs said in a release. Due to the provisions of the Privacy Act, no further information could be disclosed, it said.
“Canada continues to call for clemency for Robert Schellenberg, as we do for all Canadians facing the death penalty,” the statement read.
Schellenberg was arrested in December 2014 and eventually sentenced to a 15-year prison term for drug trafficking in November 2018.
However, on Jan. 14, 2019, a Chinese court overturned the ruling and ordered a full retrial of his case on grounds that the sentence had been too lenient. Schellenberg was sentenced to death despite a rule governing retrials that prohibits an increase in punishment. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said the court had decided to “arbitrarily” apply the death penalty.
The retrial came soon after Meng Wanzhou, the CFO of Huawei and the daughter of the company’s founder, was arrested by Canada at Vancouver’s airport in late 2018, on an extradition request from the United States. Meng faces charges in the United States over Huawei’s dealings with Iran.
Days after Meng’s arrest, the Chinese regime detained Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor, accusing them of vaguely described national security crimes. Schellenberg’s re-sentencing followed.
Then in April 2019, the regime handed another Canadian citizen identified as Fan Wei a death penalty for his role in a multinational drug smuggling case. Wei had been arrested in 2012 and tried in 2013, but the sentence was delayed until the height of the Meng dispute. In August this year, Beijing sentenced two more Canadians Xu Weihong and Ye Jianhui to death on drug charges.
The Chinese regime has also placed restrictions on various Canadian exports to China, including canola seed oil, in an apparent attempt to pressure Ottawa into releasing Meng.
Beijing has denied any connection between the sentencing and current Canada-China relations. On Aug. 6, 2019, Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin defended China’s use of death penalty for drug crimes as a “helpful deterrent.”
The news of Schellenberg’s virtual consular visit comes after Global Affairs announced Saturday that Barton had also visited Michael Spavor on Oct. 9 and Michael Kovrig on Oct. 10 in an internet-based visit.
David Mulroney, a former Canadian ambassador to China, however, warned against overreacting to the virtual visit.
“There was absolutely no reason that virtual access couldn’t have been offered by China even during the height of the pandemic, and no justification for denying in-person visits after China emerged from lockdown during the summer,” said Mulroney.
“This is simply more cruel treatment by China, with the expectation that we will be grateful even for even a half-hearted effort on their part. We shouldn’t fall into that trap.”
Michael Chong, the Conservative foreign affairs critic said he is seeing signs the Liberals are taking a firmer stand against Beijing.
“I think the Liberal government’s finally responding to the pressure that the Conservatives have been putting on them,” Chong said.
Trudeau criticized the human rights record of the Chinese regime during a press conference on Tuesday.
“We will continue to work with China for advancing Canadian interests and Canadian producers. At the same time, we will remain absolutely committed to working with our allies to ensure that China’s approach of coercive diplomacy, its arbitrary detention of two Canadian citizens, alongside other citizens of other countries around the world, is not viewed as a successful tactic by them,” he said.
“It has put a significant strain on Canada-China relations and we will continue to highlight our concern for the Canadians detained, our concern for the protection of human rights in places like Hong Kong, in Xinjiang province with the Uyghurs.”
Minister of foreign affairs François-Philippe Champagne called on China Wednesday to “immediately restore regular and consistent consular access to all Canadians in detention.”
The Chinese regime, meanwhile, has described Meng’s arrest as a bullying tactic by Canada, a charge denied by the Canadian government.
Bob Rae, Ambassador to the United Nations told UN General Assembly on Oct. 9 that any accusation of bullying was misdirected.
Rae said the regime arbitrarily arrested Kovrig and Spavor, who have since been living in “terrible conditions” without consular access.
When China accused Canada of “bullying” China because of the extradition issue involving Mme Meng, this was my reply in the 3rd Committee of the UNGA… https://t.co/pFCvMBaP8O
— Bob Rae (@BobRae48) October 9, 2020
With files from The Canadian Press and The Associated Press